Mikel Smith used to be known as Detroit's oldest raver. We haven't heard that tag since the late 1990s, of course, when local electronic music hype was busting out all over the world, largely thanks to such then-surging properties as Carl Craig's Planet E, Richie Hawtin's Plus 8/Minus and various projects connected to the Underground Resistance/Submerge Recordings nexus.
Another crucial step up in the pre-millennial techno trajectory was the flowering of Motor — formerly a Polish Falcons Hall on Caniff Street in Hamtramck — into a globally endorsed superclub. Nearly everyone active on the high-flying circuit that supported our local DJs going to Europe and Asia for weekend gigs played at Motor. Even on slow nights, people would jam into the cozy back bar, known as the Study, to check out a rare live performance by the underappreciated Theorem or an even rarer stateside DJ set by BBC Radio 1 polymath Gilles Peterson. And on good nights, clubbers were lined around the building to see Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson or Carl Cox.
It was there that I first heard of Smith and his store, Detroit Threads, which moved to Hamtramck around the time Motor began programming electronic dance talent almost exclusively in 1998; the odd pre-Blowout party appearances by then up-and-comers the Von Bondies and the Sights were the rare exceptions.
When I first met Smith at his first Hamtown store on Joseph Campau, south of Belmont, he blew off the "oldest raver" moniker with a "Pffft" and a shrug — he was in his early 40s then; do the math to figure out how old he is now — and simply got back to work buying or selling records and clothes, trading memorabilia, organizing racks and bins filled with a dizzying amount of incredibly interesting shit. If you needed a bag or crate for your records, he had it. Inventory included everything from old punk rock posters and fliers from Bookie's 870 and the New Miami (not the Old Miami) to vintage JFK-era suits and matching shoes. A cool place.
Things were good at that location, he says, "but it was a tight fit. Things began to really come together when I moved up the street four years ago." He hauled his entire inventory one block up Joseph Campau to what was once home to a series of swank dress shops (circa 1940s-1980s) and later tatty resale clothiers (1990s-2000s). It's a space roughly triple the size of the other store. In this new building, Smith has the luxury of using two large walk-in display windows for books, hats, bicycles and still more records. He has had DJs spinning, as well as fashion shows and artists doing real-time painting exhibitions, often capturing a full-on audience before they even walked through the door.
But things have really shifted into high gear of late. The local heads always knew about the records to be found in this store, but that was then. The "now" is even more impressive. Smith's knack for targeting particular artists, labels and subgenres has mushroomed into floor stock that comes close to 50,000 records, including new and used, LPs, EPs, and 10-, 12-, and 7-inchers. Plus, there are another 8,000 to 10,000 discs in the back that Smith holds back for online auctions. And then there are a few thousand more that still need to be priced and filed! Trustworthy trainspotters report that Theo Parrish and Alex O. Smith (or Omar S to the rest of the world) have been coming into the store with boxes of records lately. No wonder the FXHE and Sound Signature sections are looking mighty fat and healthy.
Smith recently partnered with Andy Garcia (Docile, Cryovac) on a new label project called, cleverly, Detroit Threads. Garcia, an Indiana native who says he moved here "to be close to where the music is," works at the famed Archer Record Pressing Company and now part time at Threads. "We decided to limit each run to 313 pressings," Garcia told me during an all-day in-store event last month celebrating Record Store Day. Whoa! Sounds simple but brilliant. We like it! Later, Smith showed me an even more limited pressing of Detroit Threads 001 on clear 12-inch vinyl — some issued with a green tint, others with yellow. The inner label of the first release has a picture of a DDOT bus (fittingly, the Chene line, No. 10, a bus that Smith would catch outside his store to take him home to his downtown loft). Oh, yeah. Music! The record features exclusive tracks by Garcia ("Firsty") and Punisher ("Prescription Percussion").
"The artists and the bus line image will change with every release," Smith says proudly. And, in fact, Detroit Threads 002 is being mastered and plates are being created at Archer right now, with at least white-label versions anticipated to be ready for Movement festival weekend, which is May 29-31. "But we're hoping to have copies of the actual release by then," he says. The sophomore disc features tracks by the Detroit Techno Militia's T. Linder and DJ Seoul. A third release is also in the works and will have contributions from Kero and Josh Surma.
The overall motivation behind the label is "not about money," Smith claims, "but about marketing and promoting Detroit music."
Toward that end, Detroit Threads is hosting five days of in-store DJ rotations before and during Movement weekend, which is always Smith's busiest sales stretch during the year. Every year around Memorial Day, techno travelers from as far away as Belgium, Holland, the U.K., Japan and Germany find their way uptown to his store. Was that really Kompakt's Thomas Fehlmann that you saw in the store after he performed with the Orb on the Main Stage at Hart Plaza? And was Superpitcher really digging for rare vinyl at Threads in 2006? Yep. Tentative guests and showcases lined up for this year's special weekend include Pirahnahead, the Blackman and a live webcast of Aaron-Carl's W.A.R.M.T.H. Sessions. Count on Detroit Techno Militia members to also take their turns, as well as Garcia, Punisher and others.
The schedule is being nailed down as we type — or, more accurately, as the rest of us sleep and Smith works, burning the post-midnight oil night after night after night. "It's been 12-14 hours a day for me for a long time," he says, "and it's finally started to pay off." So, where's the rave tonight, then, Mikel? "My couch," he grins. "Once in a while, I feel like going to a party on a Saturday night. But when my ass hits those cushions, it's all over."Walter Wasacz writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]